Updated April 2014, next review April 2017
Lifestyle and premature birth
The way your life is lived can have an effect on your risk of premature birth. There are some things that you will not be able to change, such as ethnicity or age but there are some others that you may be able to change.
Try not to worry if you enjoyed a booze-fuelled night out before you knew you were pregnant, the likelihood is that it will not affect your baby. You can make a conscious decision to avoid alcohol though once you know you're pregnant. The same goes for smoking and the other activities below that may harm your unborn baby.
Read more here on changing your lifestyle to reduce the risk of premature birth.
Alcohol, recreational drugs and preterm birth
Alcohol can harm your developing baby. You should not drink at all in the first trimester and ideally not at all until after the birth. If you do choose to drink though, limit yourself to one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week maximum.
If you use cocaine or heroin while pregnant, you will be more likely to have your baby prematurely.
Smoking and preterm birth
Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth up to two-fold and is associated with waters breaking early and intrauterine growth restriction.The more cigarettes smoked, the higher the risk.
What you can do to reduce your risk is to give up now. Find out more reasons why it's so important to quit.
Mother's age and preterm birth
If you become pregnant in your teens or over the age of 35, you will have a higher risk of premature birth.
Mother's weight and preterm birth
You are at higher risk of having your baby early if you have poor nutrition or are underweight - particularly if your body mass index (BMI) was below 19.8 before you became pregnant.
If you are obese (with a BMI of more than 30), you are also at increased risk of medical intervention leading to premature birth.
If you find you are already pregnant and overweight, you must not diet during pregnancy, but you can improve your lifestyle.
Find out more about managing your weight in pregnancy.
Income and employment
It is widely recognised that people who have more opportunity in life have better health. There is evidence of inequalities across many areas of health - and that includes the statistics for premature delivery. Heavy physical work, standing for a long time and shift/night work are also linked to preterm birth.
Many women who have premature babies have less frequent contact with antenatal services, either because they are unavailable or the mother does not attend appointments. This means that women who are at risk of premature delivery are more likely to have their babies prematurely because the healthcare team is unable to check for warning signs.
What you can do to avoid this is to try and attend all of your antenatal appointments.
Women who experience physical abuse are at increased risk of premature labour, and women who are victims of domestic violence are more likely to have a premature baby.
Women experiencing stress from a serious life event are at greater risk of premature birth. Premature birth is also linked to a wide range of psychiatric disorders.
If you're feeling very stressed, don't struggle on alone: it's important to get help. You could confide in your partner or a friend, or seek advice from your GP. Find out where to get help for depression.
Ethnicity and preterm birth
In most developed countries, women from non-white ethnic groups are more likely to have premature birth than other women.
The causes and problems of premature birth
Your premature baby:
You can also read about
NICE (2010) CG62 Antenatal Care: Routine Care for the Healthy Pregnant Woman. 2010, National Institute of Clinical Excellence
Norman J, Greer I (2011) Preterm labour, managing risk in clinical practice. 2011, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
BMJ Best Practice. http://bestpractice.bmj.com/best-practice/monograph/1002/basics/aetiology.html.
Macdonald S, Magill-Cuerden J (2012) Mayes Midwifery. Fourteenth edition ed. 2012: Balliere Tindall Elsevier.
Raatikainen K et al (2007) Under-attending free antenatal care is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes. BMC Public Health, 2007. Vol 27.
Yost NP et al (2005) A prospective observational study of domestic violence during pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol, 2005. 106(1): p. 61-5.
Barrios YV et al (2014) Risk of spontaneous preterm birth in relation to maternal experience of serious life events during pregnancy. Int J Womens Health, 2014. 6: p. 249-57.
James D, Steer P (2011) High risk pregnancy, management options. Fourth edition ed. 2011: Elsevier Saunders.